On the desk in my office sits a can of inedible corn. I received this piece of junk from Warner Brothers back in September as a promotional gimmick for The Informant! (whose protagonist, played by Matt Damon, works for the agribusiness conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland). The size and shape of a one-gallon paint can, the thing had a plastic nipple on top that held in place a compact disc containing a digital press kit. Affixed to the clear, plastic side, over the exposed corn kernels, was a label reading:
**do not open container** popcorn kernals not for consumption.
The more I looked at this eyesore, the madder I got. Within reason, I try to recycle everything I can and avoid any packaging that will end up in a landfill. I take a canvas bag to the grocery store, refuse Styrofoam containers and plastic utensils—you know, the whole bit. This thing had no function whatsoever, aside from delivering a disc that could easily have gone in an envelope. Warners had probably shipped hundreds of them to journalists around the country, and they would all go straight into the garbage.
On the other hand, could there be a more appropriate symbol for today's mass-marketed movie than a gallon can of corn? Over the past few decades government price supports for corn have motivated companies like ADM to produce more of it than we can possibly eat. The excess is fed to cattle, which results in fattier beef than earlier generations of Americans ever consumed, and converted into high-fructose corn syrup, which has become ubiquitous in the products that line our supermarket shelves. (Anything still left after that goes into gallon cans to send to movie critics.) This quantum shift in the American diet is thought to be a prime factor in the obesity epidemic, which kills as many as a thousand people a day.
In like fashion, the six major studios that control the vast majority of American movie screens—Columbia, Disney, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Universal, and Warner Brothers—have, over the past few decades, been pumping more and more sugar and fat into our mental diet. Characters, stories, ideas, and evocations of reality have been elbowed off the screen by one-liners, chases, cliches, and digital fantasy. The "popcorn movie," once a single segment of a relatively diverse movie market, has taken over the market, and in the process movies have become not just a tool for selling popcorn but the corn itself. Agribusiness is creating a nation of fat-asses; the movie business is creating a nation of fatheads.
This time of year is particularly depressing because even as we survey the movies that came out in 2009, the majors are busy manufacturing demand for their 2010 product. Comcast just ran a promo for the "Most Anticipated Movies of 2010," which prompted me to wonder: anticipated by whom? It's my job to keep track of this stuff, and I hadn't even heard about some of these, much less "anticipated" them. What a tedious assortment of retreads they appear to be: Iron Man 2 (sequel), Piranha 3-D (remake), The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (sequel), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (sequel), The A-Team (remake), Tron Legacy (sequel), Toy Story 3 (sequel), A Nightmare on Elm Street (remake). The only titles that weren't strictly sequels or remakes were Date Night, a comedy with Tina Fey and Steve Carell, and Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, not exactly a new story.
Of course in a business now defined by opening-weekend box office, any movie that isn't "anticipated"—i.e., massively presold—faces an uphill battle to get anything like the audience it deserves. A case in point is Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq war thriller The Hurt Locker, one of the most critically acclaimed movies of 2009 (it won the Village Voice poll, tied for second in the IndieWIRE poll, and cleaned up last weekend at the National Society of Film Critics awards). If there was ever a critics' darling with a real shot at cracking the U.S. box office, The Hurt Locker was it: the story of three bomb specialists who drive around Baghdad detonating improvised explosive devices, it's an honest-to-Jesus action movie, filled with macho swagger and heart-stopping suspense. You could screen it after The Dark Knight and not lose a single patron.
Independently distributed by Summit Entertainment, The Hurt Locker began as an art-house release in four theaters and, largely on the strength of its ecstatic reviews, grossed so much per screen that in six weeks its release had widened to 535 theaters. But with no stars and no brand recognition, it could hardly compete against the likes of Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaur, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, or Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, each of which hogged up well in excess of 4,000 screens in its opening weeks. Bookings for The Hurt Locker shriveled week by week, and though word of mouth has kept it alive for 28 weeks, to date it's grossed only $12 million. For a feature that was independently produced and distributed, that's not bad, but to the majors $12 million is a joke—Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen grossed $402 million.
In that sense, though, The Hurt Locker really is the movie of 2009, the year we were all reminded, after the delirium of the Obama inauguration, who really runs America. The financial services industry, fresh from its taxpayer bailout, celebrated a banner year as 10 percent of those taxpayers hit the unemployment lines. The captains of the auto industry, after decades of cranking out gas-guzzling vehicles, showed up in Washington to beg for their own bailout and were startled that anyone should notice their gas-guzzling private jets. The insurance industry slowly and patiently emasculated health care reform, turning it into a mandate to buy their horrible policies. In a country where some companies are declared too big to fail, The Hurt Locker occupied that much vaster category of business enterprises too small to succeed.
That's a tough one to swallow, even with extra butter. But remember, we're talking about only one segment of the movie business—theatrical distribution. Look back on the past decade and it's a much brighter story. DVD sales exploded, opening up the whole vast history of world cinema to a much wider audience. Netflix snatched a big segment of the home-rental market away from the conservative Blockbuster chain. Cable TV gave adults who'd been driven from the multiplex something decent to watch and think about with superior dramas like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men. And YouTube democratized image-making like no technology since the home video camera, becoming the biggest film festival in history.
So there's hope for the little guy after all—and in the spirit of leveling the field, I'll list not 10, not 20, but 40 worthwhile movies that had their Chicago premieres this year. A few weeks ago, in a review of Up in the Air, I carped that this had been "an incredibly crummy year for movies." Looking over the list below, I realize that's not strictly true, no more so than Roger Ebert's widely noted tweet that 2009 was "a magical year" for movies. To be more exact, this was a year when the big studio releases that monopolized the screens were unfit for human consumption (with the few notable exceptions—Up, Avatar, The Hangover—greeted as if they were the Second Coming), while the number of small movies with decent nutritional value was unusually high.